Punchcut labs’ ethnography uncovers what everyday people want as they gradually smarten their homes

AS THE INTERNET OF THINGS INCHES INTO PEOPLE’S LIVES, SMART TECHNOLOGY IS APTLY POISED TO PERMEATE THE HOME. Plenty of sci-fi scenarios like The Jetsons, Back to the Future, and Minority Report paint the home of the future with touch screens galore and an overload of conspicuous technology. Spike Jonze’s movie Her gave us a refreshing glimpse of what it means to live in a smart home; one where devices and technology are subtle, unobtrusive, and exist in the background. Lights turn on and off as you move from room to room. There isn’t an app needed to control them, nor is there a control panel on the wall. Everything happens automatically and seamlessly because the house understands exactly who you are, where you are, and what you want — all without you having to tell it anything.

According to Business Insider’s Business Intelligence Report (September 2014), the connected-home market will make up roughly 27% of the broader IoT market in 2019. While market trends have suggested that the home of the future, a “truly smart home” is closer to becoming a reality, consumer adoption may not happen as quickly as technologists, marketers, and businesses have hyped. Always at the forefront of user experience research and design, Punchcut set out to explore how everyday people are integrating smart home technologies into their current residences and what they envision next.

Recently, our team conducted an ethnographic field study to step into the shoes of real-life consumers to understand their needs, motivations, and expectations around connected-home devices and the smart home ecosystem. Our research process involved going into the homes of individuals and families throughout the San Francisco Bay Area and spending time with them to observe, interview, and witness how they’re currently using their everyday household products. We recruited a diverse spectrum of participants – both renters and homeowners – who had at least one smart home device installed in their homes. Our research methodologies included participant observations, semi-structured in-situ interviews, and show-and-tell activities to demonstrate the uses of smart home devices. Having open, intimate conversations in the kitchens and living rooms of these folks, guided by their varied interests, enabled us to uncover compelling and unexpected insights.


The People We Met

We talked with a wide variety of people and observed their patterns for using smart home technologies. We also learned about the barriers for further adoption. Based on our research, we created archetypes to help us understand target users and their behaviors:

THE RENAISSANCE MILLENNIAL has a Nest Learning Thermostat in her newly renovated one-bedroom rental apartment. On an unusually hot day, she loves being able to adjust the AC using the Nest iPhone app when she’s on her way home, so it’s nice and cool when she gets inside the house. She is even more excited by the device’s ability to adapt to her unique behavior patterns through a learning algorithm and is optimistic about the company’s extension to other smart home products.


I don’t worry about Nest knowing when I’m home. It doesn’t seem harmful. Company trust is key… Google’s mantra is: “Don’t be evil.”
JessieAge 25, Ph.D. student of Pharmaceutical Sciences and Pharmacogenomics and Apartment Renter in San Francisco, CA


THE NEIGHBORHOOD DETECTIVE vigilantly uses his Dropcam to monitor crime in his area. He proactively records vandals breaking into cars on his busy street, shares the footage with the local police department and frequently catches the perpetrators – an act of security which is greatly valued by his local community.


I got the Dropcam because I was looking for an inexpensive form of surveillance. I put my camera up to see if I could catch anything… and I did! Word got around and that video went viral. Recently there haven’t been break-ins, and it was almost a daily thing before.
BorisAge 28, Warehouse Supervisor and First-Time Home Owner in Oakland, CA

The neighborhood detective


THE DIY GEEK is determined to install and configure the smart home devices (i.e., lighting, locks, thermostat, fan) himself in his multi-level condo. But attempting to achieve an interconnected system, where each of the devices talk to each other, has been a complex and daunting undertaking – one that has required an exhaustive amount of time, money, and grief.


I almost never recommend this stuff to friends unless you’re a hardcore nerd.
ReidAge 41, Senior-level Marketing Executive, Self-Proclaimed Tech Tinkerer and Homeowner in San Francisco, CA

The DIY Geek


THE GREEN EVANGELIST has efficiency and sustainability at the top of her mind. Her home is powered by solar panels and she drives an electric car. She appreciates the beautiful and intuitive design of the Nest thermostat – but she really loves seeing the energy savings on her monthly electricity bill.


Sustainability is a big concern for me because I have a daughter. I am concerned about climate change and what the future could look like for her. It’s scary.
RachelAge 57, Climate Researcher, Mother of a Teenager, and Homeowner in Berkeley, CA

The Green Evangelist


THE PRACTICAL FAMILY MAN is enticed by the promise of smart home technology and has recently been caught up in the “euphoria of connectivity.” He considers himself to be an early adopter of technology – at a low price point. He is very cost-conscious and every home purchase is evaluated based on its return on investment.


The path to home automation is clunky. Everything is fragmented. I’ve heard the buzz words, but I don’t know where to start! How much is it all going to cost?
SteveAge 46, Construction Manager, Father of Two Adolescents, and Homeowner in Walnut Heights, CA


THE MAMA BEAR prioritizes convenience above all else. Her child’s safety and whereabouts is her utmost concern, which is why multiple Dropcams are set up throughout her spacious house. Her son constantly demands her full attention, so she needs everything (i.e., cameras, lights, thermostat, garage, etc.) conveniently controlled by the press of a button – easily accessible on her phone with one app.


With a baby, I don’t have a lot of hands… just one remote for everything – the phone – is just easier.
AshleyAge 33, Part-time Assistant, New Mom, and Home Renter in Walnut Creek, CA

The Mama Bear

These use cases began to shed light on the reality of the connected-home. Once we began analyzing our different and distinct use cases, we stumbled upon intriguing and often times contradictory statements that provided striking insights about the present use of smart home technology. Amidst the values and motivations expressed by the participants we met with, we learned the following:



Consumers Desire A Seamless Ecosystem, But They Don’t Always Trust Big Brands.

We heard over and over again frustrations around device integration throughout the home. Most users have been buying one-off smart products from disparate manufacturers that solve very specific home automation needs, however, they are unable to interoperate multiple devices on one holistic ecosystem. Not one single platform achieves this. Proprietary systems are limiting and disorganized protocols and formats create barriers.

Device companies like Nest have come up with good products that work… but nobody’s come up with the thing in the middle.
— Steve

We have a lot of Apple products. Apple HomeKit could convince me to switch over from Z-Wave if it works reliably.
— Reid

I’m definitely more skeptical of smart TVs that listen. Feelings about companies influence opinion. Big corporations like Samsung cause skepticism. Company trust is key.
— Jessie

Opportunity: Show An Openness That Builds Trust. Companies need to seek ways to build trust progressively over time. While the question remains whether the smart home solution may be an open-source industry standard, vertically-integrated proprietary system, or something else entirely, the key is to establish partnerships with trusted organizations to create a positive association with smart tools that will interact with the home products people already use every day.



Installation And Integration Are Too Complex… Even For The DIY Geek.

A few of our participants described themselves as a “handyman” or “DIY person,” yet even for these tech geeks and do-it-yourselfers, installing an integrated system is very complex and overwhelming. Automating simple tasks is supposed to save time – time that could be better spent with family and friends or on hobbies. However, the amount of time required to “figure it out” is a deterrent to the great majority. Others said they would prefer to have a professional install the system. But, cost remains to be a big concern. Mainstream awareness of what is currently available in the marketplace is low, so people don’t know what it should cost and whether it’s a worthwhile investment.

I’m a DIY person. I’ve spent a lot of time setting this up and I want to tweak things myself. You can’t get away from the complexity because there’s not really a good way around this stuff. It requires more prodding and maintenance than it should. It works well enough, but it was painful.
— Reid

I want home automation to make home tasks simpler, less fuss, so I have more time to do other things like spending time dancing, hiking, biking, kayaking and doing things with my family.
— Rachel

I don’t know how to go about setting my home up. The only solution would be to have someone come in and do it… but $1,000 is still too high.
— Steve

Opportunity: Build Relationships With Consumers By Creating A Sense of Community. Connecting a fully integrated smart home system is not a trivial task. But people are motivated to make investments for long-term gains, especially when they are provided with intuitive building blocks and a supportive community where they can discuss and exchange ideas, share experiences and challenges, and find practical solutions.



Low-Cost Devices Encourage Entry With The Promise Of Simplicity.

The smart home devices we saw in people’s households driving adoption are gateway devices, relatively low-priced, self-installation products (e.g., Nest thermostats, Sonos speakers, or Philips Hue light bulbs) that address very specific home needs. But they don’t easily work together – even when they claim to. The problem arises with overall infrastructure operability when consumers want to grow and scale their systems.


How easy are those Nest things to install? I see them on TV and it looks like it’s a magnet.
— Boris

People don’t know how much it is going to cost. How much time will it take? Will someone have to do it for me? All this stuff seems great, but how much does it really cost?
— Boris

Give me an easy way to program it myself because I want to control it.
— Steve

Opportunity: Focus on the Bigger Picture and Prioritize Integration. Accessible and affordable standalone products have proven to be a successful way of attracting customers. Yet, companies should always keep in mind the broader long-term operability of the home ecosystem as people enhance their level of automation. Make integration a top priority by co-designing and manufacturing products with top, dependable brands.


The Priority Of Cost Overrides The Desire For Sustainability.

Several of our conversations gravitated towards a discussion of living more sustainably to improve energy efficiency, water efficiency, and resource management. Part of the appeal of smartening the home is the ability to reduce and optimize consumption and save money without dramatically altering one’s lifestyle. Saving money is universally key. Disposing of functional appliances and upgrading them with smart ones is seen as frivolous and wasteful.

I’m motivated to upgrade my home products by necessity and emergency. If something works, I don’t feel the need to replace it.
— Rachel

Economics is more important than sustainability. The Nest and our solar panels have a financial benefit and I can see that on our month-to-date home report.
— Steve

Opportunity: Demonstrate The Quantifiable and Intangible Value of the Connected Home. The inherent value of connecting the home is not clear to many people, even if they are aware that smart homes have social, economic, and environmental benefits. This creates a teachable moment for companies to illustrate the possibilities of increased efficiency and cost savings in a personalized and meaningful way.


The Size Of One’s Home Impacts The Need For Smart Home Technology.

We met with people with homes of various sizes. We observed that home automation is less important for those living in small spaces. For example, smart lighting didn’t seem very relevant for a 1-bedroom condo with only three light switches in the house. Manually turning them on and off was not much of a burden. In contrast, those living in big homes desired the ability to unlock the doors or check on a water leak without having to go downstairs.

I’m young and this is my first home. Since my place is so small, I don’t really need a lot of smart stuff.
— Boris

My front door has a smart lock, so I can lock and unlock it from upstairs without having to go down.
— Reid

Opportunity: Develop a System that Adapts to the Varied Needs of Different Homes Every home is unique with very specific needs and priorities. Customizing experiences will encourage people to invest and extend their individual system.


Control Is More Important Than Intelligent Adaptation. Convenience Is Key.

While the participants we spoke with found the “smartness” of home devices enticing and “cool,” they were less interested in the adaptive learning technology (i.e., tracking behaviors, actions, moods, and patterns) and ability to interact with other devices. Instead, they were more excited by the ease and convenience of controlling their home via their mobile devices. We heard multiple participants describe how they liked adjusting the heat from the comfort of their beds. Two participants also said that in an ideal world they would use a tablet as a universal remote with one app to organize, manage, and control anything related to the home.

Everything should be accessed through your phone. It’s the natural progression of things.
— Boris

I use my phone to turn down the temperature from my bed. It’s my favorite feature of the Nest.
— Steve

I’m toying with the idea of using an iPad to manage everything. I have tons of remotes. I hate this [points to four random remotes on the dining table]. It’s a train wreck… An iPad setup on this wall would be so much easier.
— Reid

Opportunity: Consolidate Control With One Remote Experience While many people appreciate their smart home devices for their intended learning features, they don’t rely solely on its “smartness” alone. They also want to maintain control at their fingertips, which is why mobile convenience is absolutely essential.



The emerging smart home market remains to be a sticky one. While our qualitative research illuminated a significant amount of consumer interest in the connected-home, it also revealed reluctance around the buzz of a “true” smart home. Recurring themes surfaced during the interviews, which addressed multiple barriers for adoption. These concerns were primarily focused on the lack of device integration, setup complexity, unknown system costs, sustainability concerns, and user control. With the exception of security systems, smart home products were described as “nice-to-haves” rather than necessities.

As a result, people have mostly started to experiment with stand-alone smart devices based on their individual needs, gradually and cautiously incorporating them piece-by-piece with existing household items. Gateway home automation products like the Nest Learning Thermostat and Sonos speakers have been helpful in introducing elements of a smart home. But we see that the tipping point for mainstream adoption will lie in who can power one platform, work symbiotically with other manufacturers, and seamlessly put these pieces together in an integrated home ecosystem.

Right now, companies have the opportunity to familiarize and educate consumers about the impact of the Internet of Things and the value of home automation. The key to their success will be in simplifying the consumer experience for installing, unifying, and controlling smart home devices, appliances, and services. At Punchcut, we’re optimistic about the possibilities and we look forward to helping our clients connect homes with smart technologies that save time, money, energy, and of course, provide peace of mind.

For more information on our research study or to commission one,
email [email protected] or call 415.445.8855.

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Punchcut is a design and innovation company specializing in connected products of the future.